Fluctuating weather patterns, withdrawal of pesticides and accumulating thatch may leave bowls club officials and players feeling less than bowled over. STRI general manager of agronomy, Paul Woodham, offers advice on how to take back control of the green.
Every sportsturf venue has had to deal with fluctuating and often extreme weather conditions which has exposed turf surfaces to damaging levels of stress during the past 18 months.
The summer of 2018 recorded levels of prevailing drought and heat stress conditions which had not been experienced for over 40 years. The heat was particularly damaging even for drought tolerant grasses such as the favoured fescue species grasses.
The 2018 spring ‘beast from the east’ preceded the summer drought, but many forget that the previous spring and autumn recorded flooding events on several occasions.
Is this the effect of climate change? Maybe, but I will leave that debate to more expert opinions. What we do know is that the unpredictable and extreme weather shifts are making it harder for the turf professional to manage natural turf surfaces across all sports, and certainly harder for the volunteer greenkeeping bowls club members.
There are other challenges which all sportsturf venues face. The withdrawal of certain pesticides has increased the challenge of dealing with pest and disease damage.
There is meaningful change in the formulations of authorised amenity fungicides for environmental reasons. Controls are still available, but use always needs to be underpinned by sound cultural maintenance practices.
The way that these products are used, and the expected effectiveness of treatments, needs renewed understanding. Simply speaking, the ‘spray and eradicate disease’ chemicals of the past are no more, and all insecticides used to kill pests such as worms, leatherjackets and chafers are no longer legal.
The combined challenges of dealing with drought, heat, wet, cold, disease and pests exposes many underlying agronomic and maintenance problems, with the results being noticed by the end users such as bowlers.
There is undoubtedly more frustration and waning patience in a modern world which expects and demands everything now and delivered with a click of a button.
The accumulation of excess thatch (organic matter) is a well documented problem that most bowling greens are exposed to. Thatch forms as an accumulation of dead and decaying plant matter which has not been broken down by soil microbes.
Thatch is a moisture retentive ‘sponge’ which renders the surface vulnerable to excessively softening down especially at times of wet conditions. This results in the green speed slowing down and feeling ‘heavy’.
Dense layers of excess thatch are also prone to rapidly drying out and triggering damaging water repellent ‘dry patch’ or ‘localised dry spot’ conditions. In addition, thatch is a perfect environment harbouring pests and pathogens.
The damaging affects of hydrophobic dry patch was widely seen last summer and the remnants of damage is still commonly visible this spring. Grass cover was lost due to heat and dry patch, especially where irrigation maintenance was not effective.
Most bowling green automatic irrigation systems offer poor coverage, particularly when they are ageing designs with four sprinklers and operations with poor pressure or poor sprinkler performance.
Renovation after the 2018 season with overseeding has typically achieved a mixed bag of recovery. Conditions remained very dry through September and October with moisture levels dangerously low when looking to recover the greens.
Opportunist weak grass species such as annual meadow grass and weed such as moss naturally invaded the gaps in grass cover and where the sward density was low. Add in any damage from autumn/winter diseases such as anthracnose and fusarium patch, then we see a perfect storm for poor conditions coming out of winter.
Spring 2019 remained dry and unseasonably warm, but then cold nights with low growth potential.
Bowls clubs have very limited budgets and resources compared to other fine turf sports such as golf. Much of the routine maintenance is carried out by volunteer members and committees. Grass roots bowls clubs would cease to exist without this commitment.
The problem is that the understanding of issues and how to deal with them is slipping. People with knowledge, especially in local authority run greens, are few and far between. Firefighting maintenance is commonly applied but this is not getting to the cause of the problems.
There are many reputable and reliable contractors which offer a good level of service for non-routine work such as renovation. I am however seeing the scope of contract maintenance applications such as aeration and feeding reducing due to cost.
Clubs are trying to fill in the gaps in the maintenance requirements, but with low-end equipment and a lack of understanding, and more concerning where there is a gap in qualified training.
Whilst there are many good contractors supporting bowls, there are also opportunists looking for a quick sell of product or services which will ‘cure all of your problems from a bottle and transform your green’. If only it was that easy, and if it was, we would not be encountering problems!
Have a plan
STRI has seen a sharp increase in enquiries already this year from local authorities and clubs who are experiencing issues. Many of the issues are distinctly attributed to the impact of last years damaging conditions. However in all our assessments, we have discovered gaps in understanding of problems, and how to achieve improvement with sustainable long-term maintenance. The common flaws in the management practices are:
- There is no plan and there are no notes on current practices carried out by volunteers and contractors
- We have seen many existing maintenance programmes built around fertiliser and fungicide or biological programmes. However, many products are unnecessarily expensive to buy in the quantity to meet the recommended number of applications, and then there is the problem of applying them
- Historic maintenance programmes are outdated and have not been adjusted in accordance with legislative change or current agronomic status
- Renovations are too prescriptive to ‘one programme fits all’ without identifying problems specific to each site
So, are you frustrated with the current conditions and playability of your green? Your answer is probably yes, but have some understanding and patience off the back of a challenging year. Review or develop a plan to improve. An impartial review could be money invested wisely and set you on course for sustainable improvement.